Pete Sampras was raised to deeply appreciate tennis’ history, his education strongly focused on the powerful lure of Wimbledon and the US Open.

When it came to tennis’ premier team event, though, Sampras admitted to a gap. “Davis Cup didn’t mean that much to me when I was growing up,” Sampras wrote in his memoir, A Champion’s Mind. “I don’t remember watching it on television...So I had no preexisting reverence for the event.” Many players ease their way into the high-pressure atmosphere of Davis Cup, typically by competing in earlier rounds of the competition. John McEnroe’s debut, for example, came in a doubles match.

But Sampras’ Davis Cup debut took place at the most high-stakes moment of them all—the 1991 finals. In this case, it was also a road match, to be played in Lyon, France on a fast, indoor surface.

“When I arrived in Lyon,” wrote Sampras, “I found the anxiety and stress surprisingly high.” Perhaps Sampras was used to tennis’ locale on the American sports landscape. Amid busy football, basketball and hockey seasons, a November tennis event would hardly generate much attention. In France, though, Davis Cup was a moment of significant national importance. Led by the passionate Yannick Noah, the French were eager to win the Cup for the first time since the legendary “Four Musketeers” had lifted the champion’s trophy back in 1932.

Sampras later admitted that even though he was America’s best indoor player at the time, “Throwing a green player into the cauldron in an away final before a wildly partisan crowd was an enormous gamble.”

As the American team prepared for Friday’s opening singles match, Sampras began to feel edgier than usual. Sampras was also aware that the French players, lefthanders Henri Leconte and Guy Forget, were each capable of playing inspired tennis. Forget had beaten Sampras twice in 1991, including a five-set victory in the finals of Paris earlier in November.

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Sampras stands alongside Agassi after a disappointing loss in Lyon.

Sampras stands alongside Agassi after a disappointing loss in Lyon.

Andre Agassi kicked it off with a four-set win over Forget. Sampras would play Leconte. Though back surgery four months earlier had taken Leconte’s ranking down to 161 in the world, he remained an extremely dangerous shot-maker. Wrote Sampras, “What happened was, I froze. It was that bad. It was deer-in-the-headlights-grade paralysis.” He opened the match with a double-fault and never found top form.

Leconte was focused right from the start and won, 6-4, 7-5, 6-4. "I can't remember playing such a complete match, a perfect match, from beginning to end," said Leconte in a New York Times article. Said Sampras, “He's a pretty hot-and-cold player, but unfortunately he was pretty hot today.”

Though Sampras hoped to play better in his next singles match, that one too proved frustrating. Two days later, with France leading 2-1, Forget clinched it with a four-set victory over Sampras. “Pete Sampras, a raw youth, was completely unprepared for the demands of Davis Cup play,” wrote Sampras. “He was the wrong man for the job.”

Three years later, though, Sampras was the master of Davis Cup. In Moscow to play the finals, on clay, he won two singles matches and paired with Todd Martin for a doubles victory.